The Maple Leafs are rewarding their long-suffering fans with a series of giveaways, as they prepare to head back onto the ice for the start of an abbreviated season.
On Thursday afternoon, the Leafs announced a series of fan-appreciation initiatives.
They are designed to pump up their fan base for the season opener in Montreal this Saturday and the home opener against the Buffalo Sabres two days later.
The initiatives include:
- Not charging 15,000 season-ticket holders for the home opener
- Giving away 1,000 tickets in advance of the first game
- Having Leafs alumni hand out commemorative scarves to fans at the opener
Over the next four days, the team says it will have crews "randomly awarding" tickets to the opener "to proud members of Leafs Nation," in Toronto and surrounding areas.
But even before those fan freebies were announced on Thursday afternoon, the Leafs were already working to placate the fans who have been waiting for the hockey season to finally arrive.
The team saw thousands of people pack the lower bowl of the Air Canada Centre to watch the team practise for two hours on Thursday morning.
Those in attendance were also treated to a scarf, free popcorn and as much hot chocolate as they could drink.
While some fans grumbled, the talk has already begun about what the team needs to do to see success in the months ahead.Leafs coach Randy Carlyle is seen speaking with players at the Air Canada Centre on Jan. 17, 2013. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
Ron MacLean, the host of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, said that Toronto will have to stay ahead of its provincial rival if it wants to make the playoffs.
"Toronto is going to have to, I think, edge out Ottawa if they're going to make it and that's what I'll watch," he said Thursday.
The team won't get a shot at the Senators until mid-February, when the long-time rivals will play each other on consecutive Saturdays.
Toronto players had their own views Thursday on what they need to do on the ice.
"We have the pieces in here to do it and you know, it seems we have some good camaraderie as well. And so, if we can put that together on the ice, with our work ethic, I think we’ll have a good shot," said goalie James Reimer.
Team captain Dion Phaneuf said that despite the shortened pre-season, the Leafs have "put the work in."
The wider NHL has also been working to win back the fans who watched on the sidelines as a four-month lockout put the season in jeopardy.
The season will only be 48 games long this year, as opposed to the normal 82-game schedule.With a report from the CBC's Peter Akman